“What are the best places in the world you’ve visited?” As professional travel writers – fortunate to have traveled everywhere from Antarctica to Zimbabwe – we’re often asked this question.
Without hesitation, our answer always includes Turkey.
The whole country makes for an epic trip.
Turkey is a fascinating mix of East-meets-West, with an exotic history, mind-blowing scenery, amazing ancient ruins and some of the tastiest food you’ll ever bite into. From beaches to balloon rides to bazaars, Turkey dazzles with its array of beguiling experiences.
We spent three weeks in Turkey, putting together our own Turkey itinerary.
We planned our own trip – booking our choice of hotels (a mix of boutique and deluxe), internal flights and driver transportion.
As well, we’ve visited Istanbul and Ephesus several times on cruise ship stops.
Turkey itinerary highlights
The following makes for a good 2-week Turkey itinerary, though it would also work for a 10-day trip.
We’re the kind of traveler who would rather get to know three places well than breeze through ten places – and we prefer less “travel” time (unpacking and packing) and more “experiential” time. So on our tour of the country, we based ourselves in three destinations: Istanbul, Cappadocia and Bodrum. From Bodrum, we did day trips to Ephesus and Sirince.
If you only have 7 days to spare, don’t try to take in all of the country, but focus instead on Istanbul and Cappadocia. If you can spend more than 2 weeks in Turkey, you can savor the luxury of slower travel (and perhaps add on another destination)!
How to get around Turkey
Turkey is a large country.
We flew from Istanbul to Cappadocia and then to Bodrum, and from Bodrum we flew back to Istanbul.
For airport-to-hotel transfers and getting around Istanbul, Cappadocia and Bodrum/Ephesus, we used Vanguard Travel Services. One of Turkey’s top tour and travel agencies, Vanguard specializes in customized tours for individual travelers, small groups and special interest groups – and service is white glove.
We found our local Vanguard guides in Ephesus, Cappadocia and Istanbul to be extremely knowledgeable, our airport and hotel transfers were prompt, and we were transported in deluxe, non-smoking, air/conditioned vans, equipped with complimentary cold bottled water and towelettes.
Turkey travel tips
Best time to visit Turkey:
The summer months of June, July and August are the peak tourist times to visit Turkey. But they’re also the hottest months. Daytime temperatures regularly hit 90 F (32 C) in Cappadocia in August.
If you don’t like the heat but still want warm sunny weather, go in May or September.
We visited in September and found the weather perfect for both touring and beaching.
Late April and early October are also pleasant and mild.
You can visit Turkey in winter (mid-December to mid-March), but you should expect rain and/or snow. Mind you, we hear winter in Cappadocia can be magical – a veritable snowy wonderland! (And Capaddocia’s famous hot air balloons still fly in the winter.)
Booking hotels in Turkey:
Be sure to book your hotels in Turkey in advance. Do not leave it to the last minute and book hotels on the go when in the country.
Turkey has banned the use of Booking.com to book hotels when you are already in Turkey.
The country plans to ban other online booking sites too in Turkey, such as Airbnb, Expedia and Skyscanner.
Map: 14 day Turkey itinerary
Day 1 to 5: Istanbul
Feast like a sultan, gape at glittering palaces and soak in a steamy hammam. Welcome to Istanbul!
For most visitors, Istanbul is the starting point for a visit to Turkey.
International flights typically arrive at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul, so it makes sense to shake off jet lag here (especially if flying from North America) and to explore first this fabulous city that straddles both Asia and Europe.
Visit Topkapi Palace:
Tops on most people’s list of must-see Istanbul attractions is the Topkapi Palace, built between 1466 and 1478.
Home to sultans of the former Ottoman empire, its most famous exhibits are the emerald-encrusted Topkapi dagger and glittering 86-carat Spoonmaker’s diamond.
But you probably also want to see the harem, right? Linked by courtyards, it contains more than 300 beautiful rooms and nine bathhouses – some of which are open to the public.
In the imperial harem, your imagination is apt to run wild.
What we learned, however, squelched some misperceptions about the juicier aspects of harem life. As well as housing the sultan’s wives and mistresses, it turns out the harem was also “a center of education for concubines,” making them suitable marriage partners for courtiers and elite soldiers.
Still, even modern-day Turks aren’t immune to the allure of harem tales.
A few years ago, a popular Turkish TV show about Roxelana, the red-haired slave girl who bewitched Suleyman the Magnificent into marrying her (The Turkish Century), had every female in the country glued to the tube on Wednesday nights.
Take a Bosphorus cruise:
One day, we booked a cruise up the Bosphorus Canal on the official public passenger ferry (Sehir Hatlari).
Don’t bother with fancier Bosphorus cruises in special tour boats.
The Bosphorus ferry is more fun and atmospheric!
It’s like a hop-on, hop-off boat ride, allowing you to get off at various stops to see palaces and other sights, then jump back on the ferry again.
From Eminonu, we cruised up to Anadolu Kavagi, the last stop before the Black Sea.
Onboard our Bosphorus cruise tour, vendors hawked hot black tea in tulip-shaped glasses as we puttered past grand villas.
At Anadolu Kavagi, we got off the ferry and enjoyed a late lunch at a fish restaurant overlooking the water, before getting back on a return ferry. (The fish restaurants are a bit touristy. But hey, we were tourists, and there are worse ways to pass a few hours in the middle of the day than eating fish and sipping a couple of glasses of wine by the water!)
Stroll Istiklal Avenue:
Running from Taksim Square, the long cobblestone stretch of Istiklal Avenue is a major pedestrian-only shopping hub. Think perhaps Fifth Avenue in NYC – that’s what Istiklal is to Istanbul.
Lively and bustling, it boasts over one mile of shops – and great people watching too.
Check out the pretty Flower Passage:
If you’re craving raki and mezes at a cheerfully noisy meyhane (tavern-cum-restaurant), or you just want a few good travel pics, duck into Cicek Pasaji – the Istanbul Flower Passage.
Built in 1876, the pretty glass-covered arcade, found along Istanbul’s famous Istiklal Avenue, is filled with rows of restaurants, historic cafes and bars.
In earlier days, the Flower Passage housed shops and apartments. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, poor but noble Russian women, including a Baroness, moved in and sold flowers here – hence its name.
The arcade was renovated in 1988 and the roof restored in 2005. Today the Flower Passage lures in tourists with its beautiful European-style architecture.
Pssst! If you wander off into Nevizade Sokak, the narrow street behind, which is stuffed to the gills with more boisterous meyhanes, you’ll probably score a better meal for less money.
Soak in a Turkish hammam:
You’ve probably never had an authentic Turkish hammam experience before – at least not the way it’s done in Turkey. Chances are you’ll love it and be clamoring for another hammam treatment before you leave Istanbul.
Visiting a hammam late in the afternoon is a great way to relax and get squeaky clean before going out for dinner in the evening.
The steam, scrub and soapy massage we had at the AyaSofya Hammam sure trumped the utilitarian showers we normally have back home!
Other things to do in Istanbul:
There are many other fabulous places to visit in Istanbul too.
We also visited the opulent 19th century Dolmabahce Palace (14 tons of gold gild its ceilings), the Hagia Sophia (built as a Byzantine church, then transformed into an Ottoman mosque), the Blue Mosque (named for its blue-tiled interior) and the Spice Bazaar.
And in the historic Grand Bazaar – one of the world’s oldest and largest markets – we had fun bargaining and buying a couple of pashminas and silver jewelry.
Where to eat in Istanbul:
Turkish food is some of the most delicious cuisine in the world. You could make a meal of the mezes (small shared appetizers) alone!
Dinner typically starts with an array of hot and cold mezes like hummus, fried eggplant with yogurt and tomato sauce, stuffed zucchini blossoms, feta cheese “cigarette” pastries, olives and so on.
Then you move on to the main course (fish or meat) before finishing off with something sweet. Hello baklava!
And to drink? Turkey’s signature drink is raki, made from twice-distilled grapes and aniseed.
So, what are some of the best restaurants in Istanbul? We had particularly memorable meals at the following two Istanbul restaurants.
Meze by Lemon Tree:
This small restaurant opposite the Pera Palace hotel consistently rakes in rave reviews.
At Meze by Lemon Tree, we sampled delectable eggplant rolled with hand-braised escargot, plums and mustard – along with fresh salads, kofte (meatballs), kebabs and more.
One of the most romantic places to eat in Istanbul is the rooftop terrace of Hamdi Restaurant.
You get beautiful views overlooking the night-lit New Mosque and Bosphorus Canal while dining alfresco.
Our favorite dish at Hamdi was a delightfully-flavored grilled minced lamb, cumin, pistachio and onion creation.
Where to stay in Istanbul
Istanbul has no shortage of deluxe hotels – from grand restored palaces to modern boutique hotels. During our visits to Istanbul, we’ve stayed at several which we can recommend.
Two larger luxury Istanbul hotels we love are the Ciragan Palace Kempinski and the Ritz-Carlton Istanbul. Both have great Turkish hammams – see our mini-reviews of these hotels in our post “5 Top Hammams in Istanbul for Luxury Lovers.”
Day 5 to 9: Cappadocia
Remember Star Wars and the surreal desert planet where Luke Skywalker grew up? (That’s Tatooine – for all you Star Wars fans.)
Turkish tour guides will tell you Cappadocia was the film set for Star Wars. Not hard to believe.
With its weird mushroom-shaped rock sculptures, rocky ravines and sand-swept lava valleys, Cappadocia sure looks like it could have been Luke’s home.
Underground cities of Turkey:
But while the fictional Star Wars hero might have had no problems, all those lava rock ridges and outcroppings look rather inhospitable for real human inhabitants.
So why would a trinity of saints (St. Basil the Great, his younger brother St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus) choose to settle in Cappadocia in the 4th century?
Precisely that inhospitable looking rock. Dubbed “living rock,” this special tufa stone is soft and easy to carve, but hardens when it comes in contact with air.
Early Christians escaping persecution found the tufa stone ideal for tunneling out underground cave cities in which to live and hide from their enemies.
It’s believed there were some 150 to 200 underground cities in Cappadocia.
Today, two of the best underground cities to visit are Derinkuyu and Kaymakli.
On a guided tour, we squeezed through the tunnels of the underground city of Kaymakli. It has more than 100 tunnels connecting at least eight levels of living quarters.
Most of the time we didn’t feel claustrophobic because there are air and light ventilation shafts. We could also stand up in the large cave rooms. Still, you do have to scrunch over to shuffle through some tunnels.
Hiking in Rose Valley:
The same rock that was ideal for creating underground cities was also easy for carving out churches and monasteries in the cliffs above ground. Centuries ago, Christians used these religious establishments as a base to spread the Orthodox Christian faith.
Not surprisingly, these rock-cut churches combined with the sculpted rock landscape provide the perfect setting for breathtaking hiking in Cappadocia.
Through our Cappadocia hotel, we arranged for an all-day hiking tour with a private guide in the Rose Valley.
The song of nightingales filled the air. And it was fascinating to peer inside some of the churches we passed, many painted inside with beautiful frescoes.
It was also interesting to see and learn about the dovecotes (pigeon holes) in the upper cliffs. The early inhabitants in the region used pigeon droppings to fertilize the fields and pigeon egg whites to make plaster for walls.
Our tour also included a delightful Turkish lunch in a private wooden gazebo by the river in Belisirma Village.
(The trail along the Melendiz River in the Ihlara Valley is another popular Cappadocia hike – lusher than the Rose Valley. Check out this guided tour that you can prebook before your trip – it includes a visit to the Derinkuyu underground city, hiking in the Ihlara Valley and lunch at a local river restaurant in Belisirma.)
Another historic site in Cappadocia you won’t want to miss is the Goreme Open-Air Museum.
One of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Turkey, Goreme is an area packed with a fine collection of rock-cut churches. Many also are painted inside with colorful frescoes.
Cappadocia balloon rides:
When in Cappadocia, you must also book a hot air balloon ride.
Cappadocia is one of the top places in the world to go hot air ballooning, and soaring over Cappadocia’s “fairy chimneys” is hands-down one of the best things to do in Turkey.
Our balloon ride is an experience we won’t forget – and the cost is more affordable than you may think.
Where to stay in Cappadocia
It would be a pity to visit Cappadocia and not stay in a cave hotel.
We chose Esbelli Evi, which we absolutely adored – think loads of fairytale charm.
Day 9 to 14: Bodrum
Why all the buzz about Bodrum?
Both a peninsula and a town, Bodrum is an hour’s flight away from Istanbul on the southwest coast of Turkey. Jutting 25 miles into the dark blue Aegean, the hilly Bodrum Peninsula is a popular luxury summer holiday destination for Brits and Europeans.
Bodrum is also a celebrity hotspot.
Celebrity sightings include Beyonce, super model Kate Moss, Tom Hanks and Sting.
If you’re doing a multi-day “blue cruise” in a gulet (traditional Turkish yacht) along Turkey’s famed “Turquoise Coast,” Bodrum town is the starting point.
In July and August, the town throbs with nonstop nightlife. But you can escape the throngs by staying in one of the pretty outlying villages, like Torba and Turkbuku (or Golturkbuku), favored by the wealthy from Istanbul.
There are few sandy beaches in Bodrum.
Instead, the small resorts and boutique hotels along the peninsula have wooden decks on stilts extending over the sea, with ladders for entering the water to swim.
We spent the days like sloths, reclining on plump cushioned loungers under shade canopies, rousing every so often to slide into the crystal water for a dip.
From most of the villages on the Bodrum Peninsula, you can can catch a dolmus (public mini-bus) into Bodrum town.
In the town, you can tour the 15th century St. Peter’s Castle and its shipwreck museum.
We also had dinner one evening at the fish market, where restaurants cook up fresh seafood that you buy from little stalls. Unique!
Where to stay in Bodrum
Should you stay right in Bodrum town?
It was fun to go into Bodrum town and visit. But we wouldn’t want to base ourselves there in the height of summer – the town is simply too busy for our tastes.
We were glad we stayed in a couple of the villages on the peninsula at two luxury Bodrum hotels: Macakizi and Casa Dell’Arte. Idyllic!
For glam, style and effortless chic, check out Macakizi, one of the hottest hotels in Bodrum.
For a sophisticated hotel on the water filled with beautiful art, check out Casa Dell’Arte.
Ephesus and Sirince: Day trip from Bodrum
From Bodrum, we took a day trip to Ephesus and the traditional village of Sirince. (Ephesus is about a 2.5 hour drive from Bodrum.)
An ancient Greek city on the Turkish coast, the enchanting Ephesus ruins date back more than 2,000 years. Don’t miss the Library of Celsus, Terrace Houses and Ephesus Archaeological Museum!
Ephesus is easily one of the best places to visit in Turkey.
A 15-minute drive from Ephesus, Sirince is nestled as if in a bird’s nest on top of a mountain.
People live here much as they did centuries ago.
There are no cars, and the women – dressed in head scarves and long peasant skirts – crochet doilies and embroider napkins.
To make a living, villagers sell handmade fruit wines, olive oil soaps and handicrafts to tourists.
While browsing, we were fortunate to see a rare circumcision procession. A young boy, dressed all in white, rode atop a white horse, while family and friends danced around him, playing flutes and banging drums.
Our guide explained that male babies are circumcised at birth, but the celebration occurs when the boy is about 10.
At the end of the day, we were driven back to Bodrum for a final day of beach time, before flying back to Istanbul, and then home…
Where to stay in Ephesus
You could tweak your Turkey itinerary to include an overnight stay in Selcuk (which is very close to Ephesus) to give you more time to explore the archaeological site and Sirince.
The boutique Akanthus Hotel Ephesus, which boasts a pool and garden, is perhaps the nicest hotel in Selcuk.
Other suggestions for your Turkey itinerary
We hope that our two-week Turkey itinerary helps you to better plan your trip to this wonderful country.
If you have time, some other destinations you might want to add to your itinerary include Pamukkale, Marmaris and Izmir.
Have fun on your Turkey vacation – and if you’ve been to Turkey, let us know your favorite place in the country in the comments below!
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All photos (except 1 to 7, 16, 22 and 43 ) are © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase
We were invited to stay at most hotels mentioned here as media guests. Vanguard Travel Services provided ground transportation and guiding on a complimentary basis. But as professional award-winning travel writers, we always maintain our independence and ability to write what we want, as we experience it.